- Interview by
- Oumar Ba
I first saw Baaba Maal in 1987 when he came to perform in my hometown, Galoya, in northern Senegal. I was 10 years old. Back then, there was no electricity in the region and concerts were held outdoors, in the early evening, and wrapped up by the time it got dark. Baaba and his band spent the night and performed again the following day. You may have heard his soaring vocals in the film, Black Panther, but even today, you are also very likely to run into his performances in the Fouta’s remote towns—on a soccer field or in someone’s living room. Since he started touring the villages along the river Senegal with his friend Mansour Seck in the 1970s, Baaba Maal has remained true to his origins. As he is preparing to return to New York City on May 4th for a performance with the Town Hall Ensemble, we caught up with him over the phone. We also asked him about the current political protests that are sweeping across the African continent. This conversation has been slightly edited for clarity.
You are coming back to the United States to perform, for the first time in the past 8 years. You will be performing with the Town Hall Ensemble, a group of prominent jazz musicians in New York City. What does this kind of collaboration mean to you and what should the audience expect at this concert?
The audience should expect to see something really great because these past four years, I was exploring different combinations of music. Last year I did a project that we called Traveling Light and I was touring with Cheikh Ndoye, one of the best ngoni players. He will be with us again in New York City on May 4th. This time we will revisit all the repertoire that everybody knows about Baaba Maal, but we will bring it up to another level, with an ensemble of classical and jazz musicians. From my band, the Daande Leñol, we will also have Mansour Seck on the vocals, and Massamba Diop, who was phenomenal in the film score of Black Panther. We will also have another musician from my band who will be playing percussions and drums. We will play all the different songs from the past, such as Suka Naayo, Koni, African Woman, Gorel, but all in a different way. So, we will not just come and play something people already know. So, it’s a challenge for me and for the musicians, but at the same time, it’s very exciting to do this. I think that’s what I’m looking for, on May 4th.
Last year, you collaborated with Ludwig Göransson on Black Panther and it was a huge success. Can you tell us what that was like?
I am of course a musician, and every time a musician works on a project, the experience is unique. I worked with Ludwig Göransson after having also done film music for other movies. For example, I did it with Sembene Ousmane in Guelwaar, I did it with Ridley Scott for Black Hawk Down, with Peter Gabriel in Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of the Christ. But working with Ludwig Göransson on Black Panther was a really unique experience for me. I didn’t even expect to put my own voice in it; the idea was just to help Ludwig to record all the percussions that can magnify all the wrestling in the movie.
Baaba, you are part of a generation of African musicians like Ali Farka Toure, Salif Keita, Angelique Kidjo, Manu Dibango, etcetera. who really brought African music to the world’s stage. Where do you think African music is going now?
I was recently in a workshop in Dakar to think about the business of music that we have been successful at, but we failed to do well to help the musicians here in Africa to find their way in the industry. At the end of the day we’re talking about music, and music is an industry. The music needs planning, the music industry has to be organized in a way that allows the musicians to get something back, so they can be even more creative and to help with the African continent. Very talented young Africans are coming into the music industry. While they do not have the time to go into all this research that I did with Mansour Seck all around West Africa in the 1970s for example, the young musicians are into what is happening to them right now in the moment. That is why I think it is really important for them to understand the music industry, the business. The talent is here. When you listen to all the instruments, all the percussionists here in Senegal for example, the musicians are very talented, they are very creative, but at the same time, most of them don’t know how to find their way into the industry, they don’t know exactly who is the producer, who is the record label, the agents, and this is something they must know how to navigate. These are a different set of challenges that my generation faced. They have to be clever to navigate the industry, to use their talent to move African music forward.
You are world star now. And this year, if I’m not mistaken, you are celebrating the 35th anniversary of your band, the Daande Leñol, the voice of the people. And you are still very much the pride for the Fulani people, a pillar in your community. Is that where you take your energy from? Is that what keeps you going?
Yes, because I think what was good for Mansour Seck and me, is that we always come back to the place that made us who we are. We were playing music but at one point in time, we told ourselves, yes, we come from a community, and these are Fulani communities. At the beginning, we were just trying to promote Fulani music, and its culture. And since then, whatever we do, that is still along those lines. Of course, we are musicians, and music is universal but at the same time we know that we come from Africa, and we come from a community, and that is why we chose to call our band the Daande Leñol, the voice of the people. That refers to the people who speak our language, but also all the peoples who find themselves sharing the same ideals with us, the same philosophy that we want to promote in our music. And I’m very grateful that people really accept Baaba Maal and his attempt to be the voice of the people, the ambassador of the Fulani culture, while opening himself to other peoples who are connected to the Fulani, to other Africans, even some people from the West and the whole world who share our ideals, which are peace, love, people coming together, thinking about the future generations, and building a world of peace. And I think this is a legacy that comes from the old generations that inspired us.
In the past you, you have spoken on issues related to Africa and its development. For instance, you wrote songs supporting the anti-apartheid struggle. Can you tell us a little about your experiences meeting Nelson Mandela many times and what’s your view about the current political leadership in the African continent?
I think the lesson I really retained from Nelson Mandela is the fact that he said to us: “you musicians, your work, your voices can reach places where the politicians can never get the chance to be heard, in kitchens and living rooms, in schools and in soldiers camps, everywhere. So, you should use that power to bring people together and to remind this generation of their responsibility.” That’s an important lesson from Mandela and when he says this to you in front of other musicians, you never forget that. And I think that is a lesson that is very important now for African musicians. They should be using their leadership, their voices, to take Africa from where it is, to the next level. That is something that is always in my mind. This is why I have created the social movement NANN-K (the acronym in Fulani for farming, fishing, pastoralism, culture, and technology). This program is to work with communities and organize them along all these socio-economic sectors, to improve their daily lives.
It’s widely known that you are a Goodwill Ambassador for some UN agencies and international NGOs. But also, at the local level, in the Fouta (northern Senegal and southern Mauritania) you are very involved in local programs of socio-economic development.
Yes, I have to. I was helping most of these organizations and agencies on their programs about climate change and all these challenges to development. So, why not start something myself that will be between myself and my community, between myself and Africans. We don’t need all the time people coming from elsewhere telling us what to do and how to do it. We already know what we have to do and to make it happen, we have to organize ourselves, create our own structures, that can help us move forward. This is what I have tried to do with NANN-K and it’s getting there. In Podor we have started a project that covers 125 acres. We will multiply that all along the river Senegal on both sides, Mauritania and Senegal, and then maybe to the rest of Senegal. And in my mind, this is how it starts, someone believing that their voice is power, and start making change at the local level.
I want to speak a little about what is happening on the African continent. Across the continent right now, we see a lot of energy coming from the youth, protesting, and demanding change in the leadership, and in the politics of their country. What are your views on these protests?
I’m so happy to see these protests. This makes me very optimistic about Africa. Why? Because when I travel in Africa, I know that we are passing through many turbulences, we have a lot of problems to solve but at the same time the most important actors in Africa are its youth and women. When we look closely, we see that women are coming up with all this energy to lead in the economy and culture, in politics, in development. Women are coming more and more at the front line and leading this. At the same time when you look at young people in Africa, people are not dropping their hands. People are always trying to see what they can do for themselves, for their families. That’s an energy that never dies. This is why I say all the time that this energy will bring out something important, there’s something that will happen from these two groups: women and the youth when they stand up and say now enough with the bad things, we have to move forward. This will be good for Africa, it will build solidarity between generations, between communities, between groups of people to make these changes. We don’t have to be afraid of change. People have to protest. People have to come to the demonstrations. People have to say loud what they want. People have to come to the streets. This will bring about change and ideas that will help Africa move forward.